The biggest mystery at BYU's football practice Monday was how many defensive football players were standing and where was the medical tent.
In what could be labeled bizarre, the Cougar offense had no significant injuries against TCU, while, by the end of the third quarter in BYU's overtime loss Saturday, BYU's defense had nine of 11 starters hurt.
On Monday, BYU held out five of its defensive front seven from a light practice. Starting cornerback Justin Robinson also sat out.
"I have never been in a game where I was called out to the field that many times," said head football trainer Kevin Morris. The trainer made so many appearances on TV, his son at home kept pointing at the screen, picking out his dad. Once, he told his mother: "How come daddy isn't wearing a helmet?"
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall said outside linebacker Paul Walkenhorst's knee (MCL) will take the longest to heal. The senior is likely out for the road trip to San Diego State. Second longest to recover will be linebacker Cameron Jensen (also MCL). Others should be back.
Nine defensive starters out in one game? "That's never happened in any game I've been involved in before," Mendenhall said. "But I don't intend to make it an issue. It was an opportunity for others to come in and make plays."
Said Jensen: "I'll be cleared, I'll be back this week."
Said Mendenhall: "I've been told Jensen's MCL is similar to Aaron Francisco last year when he returned to practice on a Thursday before the Utah game."
So, what happened?
Some defensive players told medical personnel they encountered more cut blocks against TCU than at any time since playing Air Force. They didn't make it an issue, just an observation.
But Mendenhall said after watching game tapes, he believes the following occurred: TCU played significantly stronger late than in three previous games. BYU's defense had 100 plays and he was satisfied with 78 of them. The offense had 99 plays and excelled.
"No. 1, it was the number of plays; two, the physical nature of the game and, three, it was how hard-fought both teams played all the way to the end," Mendenhall said. "It was at a fanatical pace. Every play was contested all the way until there was no more to be contested. I think those things were all contributing factors."
Morris said he compared notes with TCU, and the Frogs also had key injuries.
There is a debate on how bad BYU's defense was in the overtime loss to the Frogs. In the fourth quarter and overtime, it was horrendous, failing to stop TCU even once after the Cougars had a 34-16 lead.
Two factors weighed key in BYU's defensive collapse. First was entry of TCU backup quarterback Jeff Ballard, who ignited his teammates. Second, and perhaps equally important, were Cougar injuries.
Mendenhall said BYU lost because of missed plays in critical situations. He didn't broach the injury excuse.
Some critics have lampooned BYU's defense under Mendenhall. But facts say personnel — expulsion of defensive recruits over two years and lack of depth Saturday — were bigger factors than the 3-3-5 scheme.
Mendenhall's defense, solid against Boston College and Eastern Illinois, was equally testy for three quarters of Saturday's marathon game.
It ranked No. 1 in the league in scoring defense and second overall in the league at the start and held up those averages until 78 defensive plays into the game.
At the 2:40 mark of the third quarter, it all turned upside down.
In Saturday's game, BYU defensive starters Walkenhorst (knee), Manaia Brown (concussion), Daniel Marquardt (broken ribs), Jensen (knee), Nate Soelberg (knee), Robinson (ankle), Quinn Gooch (concussion), Vince Feula (ankle) and Dustin Gabriel (torn finger tendon) missed plays. Just before the end of the third period, the entire front, plus linebackers Jensen and Walkenhorst, were sidelined.
Before that stage, TCU's offensive accomplishments included: No offensive touchdowns; just 222 yards total offense on 52 plays; three field goals and 16 points; 18 first downs to BYU's 34 and 22 total third-quarter yards. Star Cory Rodgers had one rush for 2 yards and one touchdown, a kickoff return for a score and seven catches for 79 yards. Freshman Aaron Brown had 11 carries for 50 yards with no TDs. QB Tye Gunn was 16-of-38 for 198 yards, no TDs and 85.87 pass efficiency.
But after the 2:40 mark of the third, with BYU personnel changes and Ballard in the game, TCU had an immediate 80-yard scoring drive with Rodgers' TD run. TCU gained 253 additional yards of total offense in 18 minutes. It scored an additional 35 points. Rodgers scored two more TDs, got two catches for 58 yards and was named the Walter Camp national player of the week. Ballard was 8-of-12 for 150 yards and two TDs with 226.7 pass efficiency.
Bottom line: Ballard is a fireball and BYU's backups proved a significant drop-off in ability, preparation, alignment or, perhaps, all three.
Mendenhall said some of the mistakes were alignment, others were tackling in space — correctable mistakes. "On TCU's touchdown that put them ahead before our offense went down and tied it up, we had a player inside and outside and in the middle and we didn't touch him," he said. "So, we had players there, we just didn't finish the play. It was over-pursuit in one case and not finishing in another. Other than that, I don't have an answer for you."
Mendenhall said after 76 or 78 plays, he saw a dropoff due to injuries and a dropoff due to fatigue by the number of plays. "It was not a lack of effort," he said.
"A lot of it was that we got tired, being in a lot of plays," Robinson said. "We need to meet that challenge and do better in the future. There were a lot of plays I could have made that would have change the outcome. In the future, if it ever happens again, our attitude has to be that we finish playing harder."
Mendenhall said BYU's defense is frustrated and disappointed with the last six minutes.
"But they consider themselves a good defense with a tradition to uphold," he said.